- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Tony Stewart has a theory about road-course racing. One that makes a lot of sense when you come to think about it. And the results at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., this weekend likely will prove his point.
Heading into the first of Nextel Cup's two annual right-and-left-turn adventures, there are some Cup regulars who are beaten before turning their first lap. Realistically, that's the case for some drivers every time out, but the odds get even longer on a road course.
Although you can teach an old dog new tricks on occasion, it's not always easy to teach a man accustomed to only turning left in a 3,400-pound stock car to turn right on command. And those who don't learn to enjoy the challenge often end up struggling the most.
"They've already got a strike against them for that reason. If a guy goes there with the attitude that they're not going to enjoy it no matter what, then that's probably what'll happen," Stewart said. "Until they get the mind-set that they're going to enjoy running a road course and that they're going to have fun with it, they'll have a strike against them.
"Success on a road course breeds success. If you have some success on a road course, you're probably going to like racing there. If you don't have success on a road course, it's probably a style of racing you're not going to like."
That fact, along with superior equipment, is why Stewart will join Jeff Gordon and Robby Gordon as the likely favorites this weekend in Sonoma. All have excelled on road courses, so barring mechanical failures or poor luck in the timing of caution flags, it will shock no one to see one of them in Victory Lane Sunday afternoon.
Of course, they'll have to beat the likes of road-racing experts such as Boris Said, Ron Fellows and Scott Pruett. Said's always a factor in his home state, Fellows is due to win a Cup race either at Sonoma or Watkins Glen, N.Y., and Pruett was in the hunt at both tracks last year.
Said will be driving for MB-Sutton Motorsports, the team with which he'll run about a third of the Cup schedule this year; Fellows replaces Bobby Hamilton Jr. in the PPI Motorsports Chevrolet; and Pruett is back in a fourth Chip Ganassi Racing Dodge.
All things considered, Said doesn't feel as though he has an advantage going into the race.
"I think it's more that I don't have a disadvantage like I do when I go to an oval," he said. "When I go to [an oval], I don't have the experience yet to know what the car needs. I don't know if the car needs to be better or if I need to drive different. But when we get on a road course, I have a good feeling on how much the car can do and what the limits are. I have a good feeling and know what to change to make the car better. I just think I'm not at a disadvantage. And all those guys who race those cars week in and week out, for them it's like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes. They just know. It's like second nature to them."
But proof you can learn to adapt to turning both ways is the improvement Dale Earnhardt Jr. has made through the years. He has finished 11th the last two times at Infineon and even led nine laps there last season.
Time spent racing in the 24 Hours of Daytona helped Earnhardt hone his skills, and it was at Sonoma last July when he suffered the burns that momentarily derailed his season. He was racing there for fun, but also to get even better at the track.
"We've come a long way on the road courses," Earnhardt said. "I used to dread certain tracks, and the road courses were on that list. But I've improved a lot as a road racer, and now I really like going to those places. I've won Cup races on every kind of track except a road course, so it's like the one last piece I need to fill in to complete the package."
Earnhardt might win at a road course someday, but even if he does, he won't consider himself in a class with the likes of those who have made a career out of turning both ways.
"I'm amazed at how road-course drivers the real good ones like Boris and Ron work the brakes and the throttle at the same time through the turns," Earnhardt said. "I mean, I do it to an extent, as I'm sure everyone else does. But at the end of the day, I'm still an old-school driver where the gas means go and the brake means stop. Those guys are wickedly good at using every bit of the car to make it fast. I bet if you were to put a camera in Boris' floorboard, it'd be like watching the Riverdance."
Robby Gordon says a number of the Cup regulars have improved by working with instructors at various racing schools. Still, he expects to have a strong chance at winning the pole and the race this weekend.
Dale Jarrett is one of the drivers who has taken a racing refresher course, going to the Bob Bondurant racing school in preparation for Sonoma.
A road-course win is one of the few things missing on Jarrett's impressive Cup résumé.
"It would be nice. [But] with the road racers that we have out here now and even with the specialists that come in, it's going to make that more difficult," Jarrett said. "But with strategy playing out the way that it does, anything can happen out there, so that's the attitude that you have to go with. You go make your best effort and, hopefully, maybe your strategy will play out to a point that it could get you in a position to try to win."
Pruett knows he'll have a chance to win this weekend, but says he, Said and Fellows shouldn't automatically be considered the favorites.
"There's a little bit of a misnomer, especially in the last four or five years, that hired guns can come in and show these NASCAR drivers how to do it," Pruett said. "That's absolutely a fallacy. I think every if not every, then almost every NASCAR driver has focused a lot of time, effort and energy on upping their road-course game on getting more proficient.
"Tony Stewart is very, very tough on road courses. Jeff Gordon is very difficult, as well as many others. They're working with their teams on the race car and pit stops week in and week out. They're like a well-oiled machine. [For] any hired road-course guy myself, Boris Said to try to come in and do a one-off deal, it's pretty tough. You've got to get up to speed with your crew guys; you've got to know what you want out of your race car. You're not doing it week in and week out, and that's a pretty difficult piece of it."
But the likes of Said, Fellows and Pruett enjoy themselves at places such as Infineon Raceway, and as Stewart knows, that's half the battle.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
Driving on a road course is a unique challenge, and those who don't enjoy it usually struggle the most.